Businesses to struggle unless NI grace period extended, MPs hear

Committee hears new procedures introduced so quickly that companies cannot react

A sign protesting against the Northern Ireland  Protocol is seen in Larne town centre. Photograph:  Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

A sign protesting against the Northern Ireland Protocol is seen in Larne town centre. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

 

Businesses will struggle to get ready for new procedures in April if grace periods under the Northern Ireland protocol are not extended, MPs at Westminster have heard.

Nick McCullough, managing director in the North of logistics company DFDS, said the changes required so abruptly by the protocol meant that coming back to work on New Year’s Day was like turning the lights off and coming back to find a new business. “January has really set us back significantly,” he told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.

  Sarah Hards from retail distributor AM Nexday said that most businesses wanted the protocol to work but the new procedures were announced with such short notice at the end of last year that they are not ready to adopt a further set of changes from April if grace periods are not extended. She said turnover was down 12 per cent in January compared to the same period last year and she blamed uncertainty in Great Britain about the implications of the protocol.

  “Suppliers in Great Britain are fearful,” she said.  “A lot of people just did not think that this was going to go through, something would pull them back at the last minute. In our business we reached out to all of our customers and said that this is what we need you to do.”

  Ms Hards said that extending grace periods and simplifying declarations would help to ease friction but she said that staff running the Trader Support Service (TSS) which advises businesses on the procedures, were inexperienced and hamstrung by working from home because of the pandemic.

  “It is not their fault, they have been brought into this role and have no previous experience in customs or logistics whatsoever, so they sometimes fail to grasp what you are talking about, even after a long conversation. It would be good to have someone in TSS with customs experience, with a logistics background,” she said.

  Ian Davies, head of UK port authorities at Stena Line, said business had fallen dramatically between Dublin and Holyhead and Rosslare and Fishguard. He said there had been a decrease in the use of Britain as a land bridge between Ireland and continental Europe and a big increase in traffic on direct routes from Ireland to Europe.

  “Those services are used both by Northern Ireland traffic and southern Ireland traffic and we know that this is rather an expensive way. Relatively speaking there is more cost in doing that than in using the land bridge and also there’s the time element. So ultimately all those additional costs will be fed back into the system to the user,” he said.